While I wait to undress, he talks too much about my body and its flaws.
‘You’re the first C1 I’ve had!’ he says joyfully, then adds. ‘Or should I say, the first C1 still walking!’
I don’t like to be reminded of the crack in the top of my vertebrae, a small ball of flame that flickers behind my left ear. I flash a brief smile and wait for him to go. I want to strip and lie face down already. I want quiet. I want to see the inside of my eyelids while gentle hands press on my painful parts.
There are many painful parts.
When Chatty Guy finally leaves, I strip to my knickers, hiding my bra under my folded jeans on the chair. I lay myself down, face in the hole, and reach awkwardly behind to drape the towel over my bum, my chipped coccyx. I have faults at both the top and bottom of my spine, like a chain rusting away at the ends. There’s a kink in the middle too, between my shoulder blades, slanted vertebrae wedged together from my career-ending final fall.
‘What do you do for a job?’ another massage therapist once asked. ‘Your shoulders are so tight!’
Unemployed single mum, I wanted to say. But I mentioned horses, races, the falls and broken bones of my past life.
‘Wow, a jockey!’
I just wanted to be a body. Seeking comfort as a right. No explanations required.
The horses were the least of it, anyway.
When Chatty Guy re-enters the room, he whips off the towel to readjust it, and lays it back down with a billow of cold air. He doesn’t warm his hands before touching me. He starts talking again immediately. His fingers press in rhythm with his speech, which is loud and fast as he describes his cycling injuries: a broken collarbone, a jugular vein pierced by a wheel spoke.
‘I nearly bled out,’ he tells me while digging his elbow into my shoulder blade.
I sense an air of competition. I don’t want to participate, but I’m flattened by his body weight pressing the point of his elbow down.
‘My last broken bone was from a bike,’ I say, giving him what he wants. ‘I had a go at BMX riding.’
I don’t tell him it was the hardest fall I’d ever felt. That even though I only broke my wrist, that feeling of the emotionless machine sliding out from underneath me increased the shock of smacking into the BMX track. When you fall from a horse, there’s an identifiable moment of parting as the horse tries to balance you, instinctively. The horse doesn’t want the weight on her back slipping to the side. The horse doesn’t want to fall, either. The bike doesn’t give a shit. Bam! Down you both go.
‘Does it bother you though, the wrist?’ he asks, digging his thumb into my neck.
Massage on my wrists makes me queasy, especially when they run their thumb along the nerve that makes my fingers curl against my control.
‘Good-oh! Enough to work on already!’ he pounds on the ball of flame, beating out sparks of pain that flash down my left arm and sizzle out my fingertips.
Finding a massage therapist is like dating. I want someone who can re-tune me without it feeling like punishment. Someone who doesn’t see my body as a collection of flaws to be ironed out, but a story containing mishaps. Something that requires an attentive listener. A considered touch.
Once, at a walk-in place in the mall with no customers and an air of desperation, the therapist tried to hammer out every tight muscle as if to prove her worth, her ability to fix me. But I don’t go to those places to be fixed. I go to lie beneath a stranger’s soothing hands and listen to the chatter of the shopping centre while my mind reshuffles my problems like a deck of cards.
‘You’ll come again?’ she said, as I hobbled, feeling like a piece of battered meat, to the front desk to pay. ‘You need it.’
But my needs can’t be met with brute physical force. They are more complex than that.
I had another massage therapist who would crack jokes and laugh when she had me lying on my back, letting hot puffs of air hit my face. I’d squeeze my eyes closed, feeling my lashes tremble against her crude humour. She was whip-smart with her hands though, attacking my body, ferociously, until the pain flared to unbearable, then snapping me back to relief with laser-fingers, turning my muscles to water.
My body felt good, after seeing her. But my mind started turning away. Shutting my eyes couldn’t shut her out, nor should I want to. Her jokes became more desperate, she started inviting me out for coffee. I declined.
I want my massage therapist to be separate from my life. To lay their hands on me, heal me, and release me back into the world.
I found someone new. She understood the cool distance of non-sexual touch, intimate yet not intimate. She was caring, professional, using everything at her disposal to make me feel better. Sometimes she worried too much, asking me to rate my pain when, to me, giving it a number felt futile in the face of its endlessness. I could have been happy with her, all the same, but life pressures prompted my move away. I had to start my search again.
‘You’re from the Peninsula! What made you come here?’ Chatty Guy is working on my buttocks, twisting a knuckle into each cheek.
I’m not ready to answer that question honestly. I am already face down, arse up. I don’t want to expose my personal reasons for relocation as well. They are too complex. None of his business.
My body is lonely. In the shower, I turn the water from hot to cold and cold to hot. It’s not punishment, but a therapy of contrasts. If I can stand the cold water, I can cope. It’s possible, not by telling myself it isn’t cold, but by acknowledging that it is. Sometimes the shock triggers me to cough up hunks of phlegm. I watch globules of white swirl down the drain. When I’m really stressed, I leave it hot and sit down, letting the water fall on my head. Or I slide into a lying position, the water drumming on my sternum, cascading over my chest.
Chatty Guy holds the towel up for me to roll over. I shuffle around, feeling exposed in the moments before he tucks it over my tits and under my armpits. He cups my head in his hands. His fingertips work at the base of my skull. My chin tilts upwards. I keep my eyes closed, because who would have them open right now? He is no longer talking, thank goodness. I can hear his breath, small puffs of concentration as he taps around the edge between bone and muscle. This would be the moment when my chiropractor would do a sudden twist and my neck would make a cracking sound and my head would fill with fizzing relief. But he simply places it down. Much less dramatic.
When he leaves the room, I dress hastily, thinking he might barge back in. I sit in the chair and tie my shoelaces. My clothes feel twisted, not properly settled on my body.
After a month, when everything falls out of sync, I call a different therapist. I want a different experience. Someone without a checklist of sporting injuries in their head. In the waiting room of the new place, the sign on the wall opposite me reads: The power that made the body heals the body. I squint at it, infuriated by the pastel colours, the curly font. My lower back hurts as I wriggle on the hard chair.
In the treatment room, Ben keeps things brief. He listens to me list my injuries, nodding, then lets me lie down. He first lays his palms on my back, as if sensing me, then he begins. His fingers are confident yet gentle, climbing the ladder of my spine. He feels his way in slowly, starting at surface level then going deeper. At the points of pain, his hands pause, seem to hover, then press again patiently, without expectation. They tell me that he accepts my body as it is. He is not desperate to fix it. He negotiates, instead, with its pain.
I lie like a puddle on his table. He creates gentle ripples on my surface. Pain dissipates. When he leaves, with a gentle tap on my shoulder to let me know it’s finished, I am too relaxed to move. My body is humming like a strummed guitar string. After a minute, I peel myself from the table. Holding my bra between my outstretched hands, it takes me a moment to remember how to put it on.
Time passes. Life crushes in on me. My body twists itself, again, into knots of pain. When I ring, the receptionist tells me that Ben is away on annual leave, holidaying with his family. I am bereft. How could he leave me in need like that? She doesn’t offer to book me in with another therapist and I don’t ask.
I swallow two Panadol and take my son to the park. I think about Ben while sitting on a cold bench. A friend had described him as having ‘serial killer’ vibes and I stick up for him in my head. She was referring to his meticulous silence, the way he holds the towel up so still and so high when you turn over so that he couldn’t possibly see any piece of flesh he isn’t meant to. The way he doesn’t waste time with pleasantries. What she had found disconcerting I had found the opposite. He was offering me nothing but his talented hands. I could truly relax.
After the park I sit at my computer and google massage therapists. I read descriptions on websites and look at smiling headshots, but I can’t bring myself to choose one.
I wait for Ben to return from holiday before I book another massage. On the morning of my appointment, the receptionist rings to tell me Ben is at home with his sick child, and I’ll need to reschedule. I do so. I tell my body to just hang on.
The day before my rescheduled appointment, Ben cancels again. The loss brings me close to tears.
‘I’ve been trying to see you for ages!’
Ben smiles. I appreciate the effort. He had rung me, as soon as he could fit me in. I’d been thrilled to hear his voice on the phone instead of the receptionist. He’d rung me personally. I’d shaved my legs for the first time in months.
When he leaves the room, I climb onto the table, trembling with anticipation.
When he touches me, I wonder what my muscles feel like under his fingers. How does he know the exact places on which to hover? What message is my skin giving him? What is it like to be, not in my body, but connected to it; sensing the pain, but not burdened by it? Healing it, instead, with a gentle and finely tuned instinct.
What is it like, to be him?
He holds up the towel for me to turn. As I do, one arm drops from the table, finding gravity. I wobble.
‘I nearly fell off,’ I joke as I settle myself.
‘Don’t do that,’ he quips.
Words seem to have more meaning, when used sparingly. He moves to cradle my head in his hands. My chin tilts upwards as he presses his fingers into the base of my skull. I am putty, by now. I keep my eyes closed but wonder if he is noticing, from this closeness, the flaws on my face. He changes position so that his left hand kneads my neck while his right holds my head steady, his thumb resting lightly against my earlobe.
‘How’s the body?’ Ben asks me with a smile, a month later.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I have this pain going from my back to my chest. It’s bad.’
He nods. ‘We’ll see what we can do.’
What we can do, I think as I undress. His use of the collective is generous. My role in this feels passive. I am a body, to Ben, nothing more. Just as he is, to me, a pair of hands. Yet when his hands touch my body, something happens that is deeper than skin on skin. When he relieves me of my chest pain I can breathe again. His hand presses tenderly on my breastbone, above the towel. He is careful not to let it slip. I don’t want him to, ever. I am too absorbed in this beautiful balance of intimacy and distance. His deliberate attention to my body, for the hour that I give it to him, is all I need. It is a kind of love.
Alexandra O’Sullivan writes fiction, creative nonfiction, articles and reviews. Her work has appeared in publications such as Seizure, Meanjin and Archer. She has been shortlisted for several awards including The Newcastle Short Story Award and The Horne Prize for Creative Nonfiction.